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Feline diabetes: How to recognize and manage this common disease in cats

When my cat Peter the Gray was diagnosed with diabetes 25 years ago, the only treatment for the disease was regular insulin injections.

WHEN my cat Peter the Gray was diagnosed with diabetes 25 years ago, the only treatment for the disease was regular insulin injections. Although Peter lived for another 10 years, it was difficult to regulate his condition.

We'd have an easier time of it these days. Veterinarians now know a lot more about how to treat the disease. New information suggests that more than 50 percent of cats initially diagnosed with diabetes mellitus will go into remission after a short period of intensive treatment.

Diabetes mellitus - the name is Latin and means honey-sweet - is an endocrine disorder that occurs when the islet cells in the pancreas don't produce enough insulin. The decrease in insulin means that body tissues are unable to use glucose for energy. Instead, the glucose builds up in the blood and urine. A low-carbohydrate, high-protein "Catkins" diet helps to control swings in blood sugar. Diabetic cats who eat this type of diet often need less insulin and may go into remission - meaning insulin is no longer needed to control the disease - within weeks or months of diagnosis.

Commercial diets specifically formulated for cats with diabetes are now available, but other canned or dry foods can also meet the needs of a cat with diabetes. Appropriate diets usually contain less than 20 percent of calories from carbohydrates. Be sure to talk to your veterinarian about which food to give. A low-carb diet may not be suited to cats with kidney, liver or cardiovascular disease.

Better types of insulin and home-testing methods for blood-glucose levels also make it easier to manage the disease. A synthetic human insulin called Lantus, or glargine, is readily available, cost-effective and long-lasting. Research shows that using it in combination with a low-carb diet in cats recently diagnosed with diabetes results in a high remission rate.

The idea of sticking a needle into a cat seems like an invitation to a mauling, but the reality is that most cats find injections much easier and less stressful than being given a pill. Checking a cat's blood-glucose level at home is made easier with small, relatively inexpensive monitors that require only a tiny drop of blood. Most cats tolerate the simple prick of the ear without too much fuss. Home testing is much less stressful for cats than the old method, which required a 12-hour stay at the veterinary clinic with blood checks every two hours. Home measurements are more accurate because the cat isn't affected by the stress of hospitalization.

The typical cat diagnosed with diabetes is a middle-aged, obese, neutered male. The incidence of diabetes in cats seems to be increasing, possibly because more cats are overweight. Signs of the disease are increased thirst, increased appetite and weight loss even though the cat is eating more food. Cats with diabetes eat ravenously because their bodies need fuel, but they lose weight because the body can't use the food. In later stages of the disease, cats may appear listless, have little appetite and walk unsteadily.

Take your cat to the veterinarian right away if you suspect he has diabetes. The earlier treatment begins, the more successful it is.